We're Clean: Cycling Team Volunteers For Unprecedented Drug Testing

Saturday, April 21st 2007, 2:00 pm
By: News On 6

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) -- Lucas Euser looks like a junkie when he holds out both arms to display all the small, red sores at the crook of his elbows.

"I still have the track marks," he says proudly. "This last one was a bad one. It was really painful. I think I was dehydrated or something."

Euser has nothing to ashamed of, no reason to hide his arms behind long-sleeve shirts on a 90-degree day. These are actually badges of honor, the very visible evidence that he's got nothing illicit in his body.

The 23-year-old Californian is a professional cyclist who just happens to ride for a team with the most aggressive drug-testing program in all of sports.

Every Monday, Euser and his Team Slipstream mates head to the nearest lab. They have blood drawn and urine samples taken for an extensive round of tests that should prove to a skeptical public there's at least one cycling team that's clean.

"What we're doing," says Jason Donald, a first-year rider with the team, "is going to change the face of the sport."

This is certainly one sport that needs an image overhaul.

Cycling has been marred by numerous doping scandals, reaching its nadir last summer. Several prominent riders, including Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, were expelled from the Tour de France on the eve of the prologue for their links to a Spanish doping ring. Then, after Floyd Landis pulled off a superhuman comeback, it was revealed that the American had failed a drug test on his way to winning the world's most prestigious race.

While Landis maintains his innocence and hopes to overturn the test results on appeal, Team Slipstream decided to take matters into its own hands.

The up-and-coming American team already had signed up its first group of professional cyclists -- most of them in their early 20s -- when director Jonathan Vaughters unveiled a drug-testing program that wasn't in the contract.

In addition to the already extensive testing required by the sport's world governing body, Vaughters wanted to do even more. He had developed a regimen for another team that was abandoned before it could ever be used because a major sponsor baled on the sport after the Spanish scandal. When Team Slipstream upgraded to a full pro team this year, he carried those same ideas to his own group of cyclists.

"It became very apparent that now is the time," Vaughters said in an interview at the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel, where the team hunkered down one night during the weeklong Tour de Georgia. "Let's nip this in the bud before the thought even enters these young guys' minds. Let's cut it off right now so it's not even in the vocabulary. It's not a possibility -- period."

Since everyone already had signed a deal for the upcoming season, it was an entirely voluntary move. No one had to take part if he didn't want to.

No one objected.

"I'm sure they don't like the hassle. It's a pain in the rear end," said Vaughters, a former pro cyclist himself. "But you've got to remember: For the most part, these are young guys who grew up when all these cataclysmic problems were blowing up the sport. They realize, 'Hey, this is good for us to set an example for the rest of the cycling world."'

Donald, a 27-year-old Colorado native, grew up fretting about what would be required to reach the top levels of cycling.

"It made me pretty angry," he conceded. "I was wondering when I was going to be faced with the decision to either end my career and stay clean, or keep my career going and not stay clean. Watching what's happened the past few months with numerous riders, I just figured when I got to that point and somebody asked me to do it, I would quit the sport and tell everybody how bad it really is."

Now, Donald is confident that day will never come. He expects other teams to follow Slipstream's example and looks forward in four or five years to lining up for a big race, looking around at his competitors and having no doubts about whether he's at a chemical disadvantage.

"That," said Donald, a former NCAA champion who finished second at the Tour of California prologue in February, "is going to be a pretty exciting day of racing."

Of course, it would be naive to think that performance-enhancing drugs can be totally stamped out. Every time someone develops an improved test to weed out the cheaters, some chemist in a back-room lab comes up with a new chemical or technique to beat the system.

Just look at blood doping, which Vaughters calls "by far the biggest problem in international cycling." Red blood cells are drawn from the body, frozen and re-injected just before a race to boost aerobic capacity and stamina -- critical advantages in this grueling sport.

So, Team Slipstream is doing a more advanced form of testing that keeps up with the vital "biomarkers" in each of its athletes, not just the chemicals in their body.

"We're looking for the undetectable elements, like EPO (a hormone that boosts red blood cells), blood doping and human growth hormone," Vaughters said. "Those elements are pretty much impossible to pick up on their own. What we're looking for is a change in the body. If you're blood doping, you can't tell your own red blood cells from your own red blood cells. But there would be an abnormal amount in the body. That's what we're looking for."

Team Slipstream contracted with a major laboratory to conduct the testing, so its athletes are never far from a place where they can give blood and urine. The results are sent to the Agency for Cycling Ethics, a group that also is working to clean up the sport. If something out of the ordinary is detected, Vaughters is notified.

While there have been no red flags so far, the team director said he would automatically pull one of his cyclists out of a race if a problem was detected and a follow-up test confirmed the result.

Often, there are perfectly understandable reasons that, say, an athlete's red blood cell count might be higher than normal. He could have chronic bronchitis. He could be dehydrated. Even so, he wouldn't be allowed to race under Team Slipstream's program.

"You can't just fire a guy, release it to the press and say he's a demon, a doper," Vaughters said. "What we can do is say, 'Your levels are off and we're not going to let you achieve any sort of advantage over anyone else until those levels come back to normal. When they come back to normal, you can go back to racing."'

Of course, all this testing comes with a heavy price tag. Vaughters estimates that his program will cost between $250,000 and $400,000 a year; for a larger team, such as Discovery Channel, it could run upward of a half-million dollars.

While that sounds daunting, Vaughters estimates it would be less than 5% of the total budget for the powerhouse teams – a small price to pay for a sport that already has paid so much.

Beyond the testing, Vaughters hopes the program will have another lasting impact.

"We're basically changing the whole win-at-all-costs mentality," he said. "Of course, you can do the science and the testing. That's all well and good. But it starts at the core. We've got to realize that humans are humans, not machines."